A friend recently told me about this old 19th century French comic, where a dentist ties an elephant’s tooth to a palm tree. As ridiculous as it seems, I thought it was possible that something like this might actually have been tried at some point in the history of dentistry.
Certainly, we have devised a great many methods for extracting human teeth over the course of dental history. Most people I ask can think of at least one family member who threatened to tie a child’s loose tooth to a doorknob. In my family, the preferred method for children with loose teeth was a nice shiny apple, and asking them to take a big bite. If the tooth is good and loose, this works almost every time. An apple a day works for the dentist too!
In any case, most of the professional extraction tools developed over the course of dental history have less appeal than that shiny apple. Of special interest to Florida dentists is the old tool called a pelican. It is most often assumed that this dental tool was named a pelican because its curved end resembled the beak of the bird, which we know so well here in the sunshine state. It might also be possible that the old word had more to do with being able to pull; that is, a “pull it can”. It’s hard to say, since this tool goes back, in written evidence, at least to the 14th century. By the 17th century the basic design was little changed, though the craftsmanship had become more ornate, incorporating fine wood engraving, mother of pearl, and silver inlay. The pelican basically grabbed hold of the teeth nearest the tooth to be extracted. It used the greater strength of these adjacent teeth to achieve the needed leverage for extracting the diseased the tooth. Hopefully, the nearby teeth were much stronger, otherwise it might have been two-for-one day at the dentist – ouch!
By the 1800s the pelican began to go the way of the dodo. Newer forms of the dental key were designed, which would exert less pressure on nearby teeth. The dental key, or tooth key, as it was also called, had a small claw at the end that was tightened over a tooth. It was then rotated, like a key, to loosen and eventually extract the tooth. Manufacturers began producing dental keys with interchangeable claws by the end of the 19th century. At the same time, the introduction of differently sized dental forceps rendered the dental key obsolete.
I have had patients ask me why it is that dentists used to pull a lot more teeth than they do now. Jokingly, I’ve answered that dentistry used to be a much crueler profession. In truth, whether or not a diseased tooth needs to be pulled has much to do with the availability of antibiotics, the general sanitation practices in a given society, and the overall health (that is, diet and lifestyle) of the person. So here’s to improving our overall quality of living – maybe one day we won’t have to pull any teeth!
Paul L. Caputo, DDS3490 E Lake Rd S Suite A